DAVID Cameron has signalled he is ready to lead Britain out of the European Union if other EU states set their faces against tough new proposals to cut immigration.
In a much-anticipated speech setting out plans to bar EU migrants from claiming welfare for the first four years after arriving in the UK and deport those who do not find jobs within six months, Mr Cameron yesterday warned that he will “rule nothing out” if other European states turn a deaf ear to British concerns.
The Prime Minister insisted that he still hopes to be able to recommend an “In” vote in the referendum on EU membership he has promised for 2017, and said he was “confident” of success in the renegotiation of the terms of that membership he plans if Conservatives win next year’s general election.
But he left no doubt that he has not ruled out recommending British exit if other EU nations refuse to compromise on the principle of free movement and accept reforms that he said were “radical” but “reasonable and fair”.
Welfare changes to cut migration from within the EU “significantly” will be an “absolute requirement” in the renegotiation, he said.
Under his plans, EU jobseekers without an offer of employment will not be allowed to claim the new Universal Credit when they arrive in the UK and will be required to leave if they do not find work within six months.
Migrants will be able to claim tax credits and child benefit and to apply for social housing only after four years in the country, and will receive no child benefit or child tax credit for offspring living abroad.
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“If you elect me as Prime Minister in May, I will negotiate to reform the European Union, and Britain’s relationship with it,” said Mr Cameron. “This issue of free movement will be a key part of that negotiation. If I succeed, I will, as I have said, campaign to keep this country in a reformed EU.
“If our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out.”
Speaking in Staffordshire a day after official statistics showed net migration rising to 260,000 over the past year – 16,000 higher than when the coalition government came to office – Mr Cameron conceded that his policies had “not been enough” to meet the Conservative target of cutting overall numbers to the tens of thousands by 2015.
But he insisted that his reforms had made “a real difference”, cutting numbers of migrants from outside the EU by as much as 50,000. He promised to “go further” if he wins next year’s election, by revoking the licences of colleges whose students overstay visas, extending “deport first, appeal later” rules and requiring landlords to check tenants’ immigration status.
In a clear swipe at the UK Independence Party, which has built support by highlighting public concerns over immigration, the Prime Minister warned voters to “distrust those who sell the snake oil of simple solutions”.
Denouncing as “appalling” any suggestion of repatriating legal migrants, Mr Cameron said Britain was great “because of immigration, not in spite of it”, and insisted he was proud of the UK’s openness to incomers and its creation of “a successful multi-racial democracy”.
Yesterday Number 10 said Mr Cameron had spoken to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish PM Ewa Kopacz about the speech before he delivered it – and would continue conversations with EU leaders.
Mr Cameron’s proposals won a warm response from business leaders, who welcomed his reaffirmation of the principle of the right to free movement while focusing on action to end abuse of welfare. The Institute of Directors said the speech had “effectively answered” public concerns about immigration.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mr Cameron had “no credibility” on the issue.
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